Some thoughts on divestment and the Berkeley Jewish community

The Discomfort Zone

Editor’s note: Noah Kulwin is a member of J Street U at UC Berkeley.

As word broke yesterday that ASUC President Connor Landgraf would not veto SB 160,  the divestment bill targeting companies involved in Israeli human rights violations, which passed in the ASUC last week, I was not sure how to respond.

On the one hand, it means divestment passed – an end with which I am not pleased. At last Wednesday’s senate meeting, I spoke against the divestment bill and criticized how it did not consider the inextricable link between Jewish and Palestinian self-determination. Nor did the bill propose a strategy of political engagement with which to advance American diplomatic leadership in the region.

But on the other hand, I am sort of relieved. There will be no more all-night Senate meetings, no more claims of pro-Israel lobbies buying off ASUC senators and, thankfully, an end to the repeated claims of many of my peers in Berkeley’s Jewish community that this bill’s very nature “silences” the Jewish community on campus.

Berkeley’s Jewish students are blessed with tremendous resources, including many that came to bear fully in opposition to divestment.  Whether it was coming together in our multi-million dollar Hillel building to voice our complaints, or strategize with professional support staff and Jewish ASUC Senators to provide a legislative alternative to divestment – Jewish students have had ample space in which to voice their frustrations and feel supported.

I don’t doubt that some Jewish students do indeed feel marginalized. I do, however, wonder if they are aware of how much damage these accusations of “marginalization” do to our community when we frame our own claims as mutually exclusive to those of Palestinian students and their allies.

Is a senate chamber divided between “students of color” and “Jewish students” the kind of portrait of campus engagement that we want to symbolize our community? Is it possible that the privilege of the established Jewish community at Berkeley has blinded them to these harmful dynamics?

This self-awareness is absent from the discussion in the recent Daily Cal op-ed written by ASUC leaders Natalie Gavello and Oren Friedman. According to their version of events, divestment supporters “had the opportunity to take a progressive and innovative approach to this issue but instead renewed feelings of alienation and discomfort reminiscent of 2010.”

Let me backtrack– I applaud Gavello and Friedman’s support for a two-state solution in their piece, and attempt not to “detract from the Palestinian suffering.” Sadly, the authors still have a long way to go.

First, I don’t know what an “innovative approach” to this issue looks like, or why the authors felt they should be involved in how to handle divestment. Most vocal leaders of the Jewish community have unfortunately never before indicated that they care to make change on this issue (except when they are trying to defeat divestment). This has become evident as almost none of these leaders, including Friedman and Gavello, returned to advocate for SB 158, the pro-Israel bill they were championing the week before.

Moreover, if Israel love-a-thons like “Israel, Peace and Diversity Week” with a giant, spinning Star of David in the middle of Sproul Plaza are the best our community has to offer in terms of “innovative” campus engagement with this issue, then no wonder many don’t consider us partners for change.

Friedman and Gavello are correct that divestment “renewed feelings of alienation and discomfort” – the problem is that it goes both ways. For every Jewish student complaining of their “marginalization” on this campus, there is a pro-divestment student with a similar claim that divestment supporters are being painted unfairly as anti-Semitic and that members of our community are trying to whitewash their oppression.

This also perpetuates alienation within the Jewish community. It is a sad day when my fellow opponents to divestment attempt to create this illusion that the Jewish community is united on this issue by smearing Jews who support divestment as somehow less relevant and, implicitly, less legitimately Jewish.

I remember when I, sitting in the “Jewish” section during the senate meeting, heard my peers snicker when Palestinian students told stories of their families’ suffering. And while I too am frustrated by cheers of a Palestine from the “river to the sea,” I was also stunned hearing some in the Jewish community condemn a peaceful student protest in solidarity with Palestinian hunger strikers as a “hate rally.”

I have heard many in the Jewish community cite what Israeli politician Natan Sharansky calls “the three D’s” that distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism: demonization, delegitimization, and double standards. It is with a deep sense of irony that I realize one could apply those same criteria to my community’s behavior this week.

Palestinian students and divestment supporters are “demonized,” slurred as bad people, for pursuing non-violent political actions in our student government. And they also are “delegitimized,” as many in the Jewish community simply dismiss the real tragedies of occupation as being mistruths or mischaracterizations. And Jewish students treat divestment supporters with a “double standard,” content with the other side feeling silenced or marginalized if it in any way threatens our own comfort on campus.

If the Berkeley Jewish student community wants to be fair-minded and inclusive, I fully support that goal and will work aggressively toward that end. That being said, as long as venomous discourse and acts of exclusion typify how we, as a community, respond to acts like divestment – nothing will change, nothing will get better.

Celebrated American Rabbi Joachim Prinz, speaking right before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the famous 1963 March on Washington, urged that “America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.”

If Jewish students seek to build bridges with minority communities on this campus, it begins with a refusal to be “silent” and remain “onlookers” of the struggles communities of color face on this campus and in our country. It will not come if our loudest voice is the one that complains about being “silenced.”

Image source: kateausburn via Creative Commons.

Contact Noah Kulwin at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @noahkulwin.